Joe Biden’s probably right about police reform, but this raises a couple of questions. First off, who’s responsible for reforming the police? And just how much overdue is this reform that Biden demanded earlier today?
Neither answer really redounds to Biden’s benefit, whether he realizes it or not:
NEW: Joe Biden outlines police reform proposals in wake of death of George Floyd, and calls on Congress to begin work on them immediately. "A down payment on what is long overdue should come now." https://t.co/RvqLwQloz4 pic.twitter.com/LEIzG7zGS3
— ABC News (@ABC) June 2, 2020
First off, who’s responsible for police reform? Wouldn’t that be the political entities that have specific authority and responsibility over them? The cities and counties that run police departments set the rules and policies for law enforcement within their communities. Almost without exception, those entities are run by Democrats and have been for decades, and they negotiate with police unions that belong to national labor coalitions that fund Democratic campaigns. Republicans have almost no access to that process any longer.
Minneapolis is a particularly apt case. It has had one of the most “progressive” administrations in the country for decades; presently, it doesn’t have even one single Republican on its city council. Even though complaints about police use of lethal and non-lethal force go back decades, little has been done to conduct any sort of reform of law enforcement here, which led to the anger and unrest over George Floyd’s senseless death. For that matter, Republicans haven’t held a statewide office in Minnesota since 2010, when Tim Pawlenty ended his second gubernatorial term as the lone GOP officeholder for several years. If there is a failure in police reform in the Twin Cities, that falls entirely on the Democrats that dominate leadership in the cities, counties, and state.
But even if police reform is a federal concern, its “long overdue” status stretches back more than just three years. Jazz pointed this out on Twitter earlier:
Who wants to remind Joe Biden that he was second-in-command when the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray riots were going down?
— Jazz Shaw (@JazzShaw) June 2, 2020
Five years ago, BuzzFeed made a point of listing out the unarmed black people killed by police in a one-year time frame alone:
- Michael Brown
- Dontre Hamilton
- Eric Garner
- John Crawford III
- Ezell Ford
- Dante Parker
- Tanisha Anderson
- Akai Gurley
- Tamir Rice (12 years old)
- Rumain Brisbon
- Jerame Reid
- Tony Robinson
- Philip White
- Eric Harris
- Walter Scott
- Freddie Gray
That’s some list. Where was Joe Biden in 2014-15? In the White House with Barack Obama. Where was his police reform agenda at the time? Some of these deaths flew under the radar, but a few became flashpoints for national protest — Brown and Gray certainly, but also Garner and Rice. The Obama administration and Joe Biden had plenty of opportunity to address “long overdue” police reforms and did nothing. The Garner case specifically hinged on the chokehold that Biden today demanded that Congress outlaw, which actually didn’t come into play with Floyd, who died from another kind of neck and chest compression.
In truth, there’s not a lot Congress can do to reform local and state law-enforcement agencies, but there are a couple of areas they can impact. First, Congress can act to eliminate or greatly limit “qualified immunity” that protects police from lawsuits over abuses. Congress never passed such protection in the first place — it came from the courts, and the legislature should act to counter it. Federal support for training and standards would help, maybe, but only if the local authorities and police unions allow for it. Biden could probably do more good on those points by lecturing his fellow Democrats and Big Labor supporters to achieve that.
Besides, Biden might be a day late, as well as six years late. Mitch McConnell suggested yesterday that the Senate will take up issues of federal police reform, although to what end remains to be seen.
.@senatemajldr: "These disturbing events do not look like three isolated incidents. They look more like the latest chapter in our national struggle to make equal justice and equal protection of the law into facts of life for all Americans…this struggle remains incomplete." pic.twitter.com/WmDP9AYNhy
— CSPAN (@cspan) June 1, 2020